The Knife: Music for the 21st Century

The clean narrative of music’s progression from 60’s pop to 70’s rock to 80’s metal to 90’s alternative shatters violently at the turn of the century. Musical shrapnel shoots violently across the vast empty space of the universe. Genres proliferate at a dizzying rate, at the rate at which the universe expands. As a listener, lost and adrift in space, these shards pass through one’s body like cosmic rays of energy from a sunburst. Occasionally, one such shard strikes a nerve.

If there is a music for the 21st century, it should be something like The Knife. It should be impersonal, industrial, haunting, melodious, at once manufactured and yet subversive of manufacturing and industry. Its instruments should be the touchscreen, the drumpad, the synthesizer, the digital sound processor.

It should accord its listener, lost in space, with a sense of harmony in vast emptiness, a sense of belonging in the midst of nothingness, a sense of place where coordinates and location are impossible, a sensation of movement even though every distance is infinite. It should be our salvation, our uplifting, our transcendence, our god in an age where god is not.

I’m late to the party. “Silent Shout,” the last album by The Knife, was released in 2006. It swept the Swedish Grammy’s, picked up Pitchfork’s Album of the Year, and then apparently drifted into space. Perhaps appropriately so: The Knife makes music fit to be played into the empty vacuum of space, amplified, and amplified, and amplified into vast nothingness. A writer for the LA Times suggested (and I paraphrase) their music should be played from an altar in a obsidian church, preferably while levitating.

The Knife released a concert video, “The Audio Visual Experience,” in which the performers, visuals, and music become one, become more than the sum of parts. So seamlessly do they fade into and from each other that it becomes impossible to tell where the performers end and the music begins, to tell solid flesh from massless projection.

It’s a palimpsest of visual images, physical performers projected back upon themselves, the swirling shapes and colors engulfing the performers, even as they lose themselves into their music. The refracting projections play fast and loose with space and time.

I can’t stop watching.

Of the performers you seldom see more than white gloves and masked faces. At times, the image of a performer is projected back upon the performer, but imperfectly and enlarged. Solid flesh melds with projected image and is obliterated, as though the tangible performer is vaporized by the projection of self upon self.

A green light appears on stage left, illuminating a puppet mannequin and an oversized music box. The mannequin’s stick-like wooden arm unevenly cranks the music box (or does the music box drive the arm of the mannequin?), which projects bursting light upon the performers. The mannequin’s head, you realize, is merely a projection, becoming first exaggerated lips, then a passing star field in space. Suddenly the performers are themselves drifting in this same star field, which turns to snowflakes, which envelops the stage and performers as their music settles into silence.

And so on.

For The Knife, it’s as though their music has no beginning, no end. It feeds back into itself. This sense of infinity is suggested by the way the music builds upon itself, by the way the voices are layered, by the looping of visual images.

Unfortunately for the viewer, while space and time are infinite, The Audio Visual Experience is not. When music fades and credits appear, one wonders where an hour just went, reaches instinctively for the re-play button, and realizes feeling comforted and at home, even while drifting in space and time.

The Knife releases a new album on April 8th titled “Shaking the Habitual”. A tour has been scheduled. The tour does not, as of yet, include the United States.

About Mark Egge

Transportation planner-adjacent data scientist by day. YIMBY Shoupista on a bicycle by night. Bozeman, MT. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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